Take-Aways from TechCrunch Robotics+AI

I attended the TechCrunch Robotic+AI conference at UC Berkeley last month. I’m in tech, but not in this kind of tech; I went to learn more.

The conference had a number of interesting speakers and exhibitors, and gave me a lot to think about. Here are a few take-aways….

Solution in Search of a Problem

The conference was stuffed full with super-smart people who want to build robots. What many would-be robo-teers don’t have is a clear idea of is what, exactly, the robot should do. I’ll admit I was a bit surprised by this early admission, but when I thought about my experience in application development, I agreed that the need for product owners, designers, artists, and SMEs with strategic vision is essential to the successful project/product. Building robots is no exception.

The verticals that will first benefit from robotics: Big agg (already on the leading edge); manufacturing (of course), healthcare (which could benefit from more technology in general) and the home which, given the complexity and commonality of house and yard work, is the most difficult to solve, but potentially the most lucrative.

The irony is that in a room filled with “hard science” people, what they desperately needed were those fluffy “soft science” majors: artists, sculptors, designers, anthropologists, occupational therapists, science fiction writers — someone to guide the linear thinking robo-teers to other life forms. Liberal arts is art for a reason.

Robots Need to Complete the Task – Not Create New Ones

Colin Angle, CEO of iRobot, had perhaps the best insight into what it takes to bring a robot to market successfully. Colin left college with a burning desire to build robots; however, he did not become successful until he “started selling selling vacuums ….” He cautioned that it’s not enough that a robot be cool, it cannot add additional tasks or complexity if humans are going to buy one. Robot designers must understand that simply automating the existing task is not enough – they must completely re-think how the task can be accomplished – by a machine – a machine that doesn’t usually have legs or hands.

I was a Gen1 Roomba owner. I loved that the Roomba vacuumed my house, but what was the point if I had to charge, clean and find the thing? Not surprisingly, iRobot had this same realization, which drove improvements in subsequent iterations. The Roomba is now self-docking, charging, cleaning – and cats still love it.

I’m not sure how many cats will be riding their latest product, Terra, a robotic lawn mower, which looks to be thoughtfully designed in addition to being super-cool. No lawn in my Mediterranean landscape, but I did buy some iRobot stock.

Common Platform

Another “yeah, duh!” moment for me was Nvidia’s VP of Engineering, Claire Delaunay introducing the Isaac SDK robotic platform. If you think back to the pre-smart phone dark-ages, you’ll recall that it was the release of the common mobile platform(s) that provided global developers the ability to build flashlights into the future. Robotics is in a similar state of evolution. Claire explained that delivering robotic intelligence has been deterred by a lack of unified platforms for software and hardware development.

Nvidia’s Isaac SDK robotic platform wants you to come build, and there were quite a few people at the Nvidia development workshop who intend to do just that.

Robots Are Coming for Your Job

Ahhhhhhh…..Not anytime soon.

Perhaps the best thing about this conference was the reaffirmation of the amazing human body. The ability to walk, balance, process and instantaneously reprocess new information, muscle memory. No robots for this – not even close. At the end of the day, AI is still an algorithm.

Consider the task of sorting tomatoes or picking strawberries. The ability of the human hand to immediately detect the softness, firmness of the fruit, adjust one’s grip, scan swaths of fruit moving on a belt, detect blemishes, defects, size, ripeness. Toss a sub-par piece of fruit aside (and we’re talkin’ two hands here) while having a conversation with a co-worker. The millions of decisions and actions taken by the body and brain (not to mention breathing and keeping your heart beating) is simply miraculous.

Robots are good with hard stuff – no strawberry pickers here – consistent sizes, repetitive motions, they all have wheels, they need smooth surfaces. Legs can navigate irregular surfaces, climb stairs, slide into Warrior 3. Robots can’t rebalance or adjust to change; they must have consistency. If the task has multiple variations, the robot’s effectiveness is limited or terminated.

Augmentation

The ability to replace humans is much less realistic than the ability to augment their movements. This is where prosthetics and other Iron Man devices really capture the imagination.

For me, the most compelling story was presented by Manmeet Maggu CEO from Tréxō Robotics. Manmeet explained that his journey began with the discovery that his nephew had cerebral palsy. While searching for solutions that could help him walk, he was disappointed to find that exoskeletons were designed for adults not growing children.

Manmeet and his friend Rahul (both studied robotics at the University of Waterloo) set out to change that. Their current product is designed to help children with disabilities walk. The technology provides the wearer a repetitive, physiologically correct gait, which enables a child to exercise by walking.

I loved everything about this. Unlike a Battle-Bot, it meets a real market need. It can be adjusted to each individual. The product exists IRL, and can be purchased or leased. Well done.

Robotic Buzz-Kills

China, not surprisingly, is leading the way in robotics technology. There were cautions to be protective of IP, and that those who choose to partner with Chinese companies should not skimp on lawyers. VC in robotics is also challenging. The ROI period for a robotics start up is long (10+ years), and their burn rate can be much higher than a software startup due to the complexity of industrial design, prototyping, and integration. This isn’t Angry Birds – you need to be ready for the long haul.

AI Thoughts

Brevity dictates my take-aways focus on the robotics side of the conference; however, the AI talks were also compelling. Be warned: Fake news will join Deep Fakes making the policing of social media platforms even more challenging. No doubt, we will see these forces invade our 2020 election cycle like a hoard of White Walkers into Winterfell.

Implicit bias, and other discussions of ethics are important topics of the day, and could easily be a whole separate conference.

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While the Berkeley campus was a bit inconvenient, it likely kept the cost of the event down, and was a nice change from usual hotels and convention centers.

Looking forward to Disrupt in October.

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Copyright 2019 Pierce/Wharton Research, LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this post shall be reproduced without permission. Have a question ? Email me at info@piercewharton.com.

You JUST Lost Your Job* How NOT to Freak Out!

When you lose your job, you lose control over a big part of your life.  It’s this lack of control that feeds the anxiety we all feel when we are between gigs.  We don’t have a daily routine. We don’t have control over our finances.  We don’t know how much time we have before we start back at work.  It’s hard to make plans.  Being in a state of limbo is frustrating; being worried about money doesn’t help.

If you’re new to unemployment, the loss of control is a much bigger emotional challenge than the task of finding a new job. Trust me, you WILL find another job!  Nevertheless, being without a job is a huge disruption to a well-established life routine. Without a job, people struggle to structure their day, some find they can’t, and so begins the downward spiral. The time passes quickly (another thing over which you have no control).  You become more anxious and irritable (or blue and withdrawn), which only compounds the feelings of helplessness.

If you can control it, do so. If you can’t, let it go.

Worrying isn’t action.

Of course, you can – and should – do everything possible to look for a job but you cannot control when you’ll actually go back to work.  Focus on what you can control – which is everything else in your life.

Keep Your Routine

Get out of bed the same time you did when you were employed; it’s too easy to let the morning slip by sleeping in.  Get up, clean up, get dressed. Use the time you would have spent commuting to take the dog out for a walk, hit the gym, or an early morning yoga class before settling down to your computer.

Don’t lie to yourself that you have time, and will do it “later.” We know how that conversation ends, right?  Keep your morning routine. It ensures you are more productive when you’re unemployed, and the structure will help you easily settle back into your new routine when you get back to work.

Lose Some Weight

You can’t make any excuses for being a slug. You didn’t make it out for a walk today because…. You didn’t go to the gym because…. Why? You’re sooo busy? Really?  Busy doin’ what? You DON’T have a job!

Similarly, the largest part of our discretionary income goes to food.  If you’re between jobs, you have zero reason not to prepare food from scratch.  Pull out the recipe books, plan your menu(s), prepare your food, and actually do some cooking! Eating well is good for your weight, good for your budget, and good for your relationship.  If your SO is working, coming home to a nice meal (rather than you lying on the sofa playing Fortnite), will make arguments about how you spent your day far less likely.

Similarly, resist the temptation to party like a rock star on school nights.  Having an occasional late night is small consolation for being out of work, but don’t make it a habit. Hangovers make you sluggish, irritable, and if you’re blue about being unemployed, it will make it worse.

Nothing will make you feel less confident and more out of control than being bloated, over-weight, hung-over, AND unemployed! You have the time to develop better habits, and zero reason not to do so. Don’t drink too much; don’t sooth yourself with food.  You’ll feel and look a LOT more confident if your energy is high, and your interview clothes are a bit loose.

Clean that !@#$%!! Up!

Looking for a job is going to take a decent amount of your time, but it’s not going to take every second of your day.  Put together a list – yeah, write it down – of stuff you need to do in your home.  Rank things by cost and level of effort.  Do all the cheap/easy stuff first.  Cleaning, organizing, and painting just about anything is always good.

Whether you get your inspiration from Hoarders or Marie Kondo, knocking out chores around the house is a great use of downtime.  Nothing will make you feel better about yourself and more in control of your world than walking into a clean, tidy and organized room. #focus

Taking care of things around your house is great, but so helping out a friend or family member. You’ve got time. Go see your grandmother.

Final Thoughts

Regardless of whether you knew it was coming or it was unexpected, anytime you lose a job – even if it was a job you hated – it’s upsetting.  If you’ve been working at the same place for a long time, you’ll feel overwhelmed by just the thought of interviewing for work and petrified at the idea of starting all over again.  All of these emotions are very normal, but I can assure you that they are temporary. You will find another job and you will get past this.

Focus on what you can control.  By doing this, you’ll find that your down-time is more productive, more enjoyable, and when you go back to work, you will be, too!

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Excerpted from: The Temp Job: A Survival Guide for the Contingent Worker. Copyright 2019 Pierce/Wharton Research, LLC.  All rights reserved.  No part of this post shall be reproduced without permission.

Are you new to the job market or considering contract work? Have a question for me? Email at info@piercewharton.com.

Four Ways to Blow your Interview (*for employers)

Applicants aren’t the only ones who screw up interviews; employers can blow it — big time. I’ve gone on lots of interviews where – at first – I was very excited to be there, but as I watched, listened, asked questions (took and compared notes), that excitement quickly fizzled.

Twenty years ago, there wasn’t much to do about it. There were few jobs and many people who wanted them. It was incumbent upon job seekers to convince employers to hire them; the applicant’s opinion of the job – for the most part – was of little concern. That’s not the case anymore. Now, employers are dealing with both a cultural and economic shift in the global market for talent. For the first time (ever), labor actually has a bit of an advantage in the labor market. The shoe is finally on the other foot: Employers (who used to interview applicants), are now being interviewed by applicants, and a lot of them are blowing the interview!

Are you an employer who can’t close on good help these days? Is it possible that you’re blowing the interview? Consider the following:

1. What Employers Say…

“This is a tough place to work; you have to have a thick-skin to work here…..”

~What the Applicant Hears…

We foster a culture of disrespect and verbal abuse. Expect to be run over because having an opinion or self-respect will get you fired.

I get the “thick-skin” comment in about 30% of my interviews. This tells me “Bro-House.” Women are subordinate, fart jokes abound, loud voices win, bullying is leadership.

At first I thought thick-skin comments were gender specific (or maybe I seem delicate), but I decided to asked around, and I’m happy to report that guys get the “thick-skin” comment about as often as I do! Whoo-whoo! Hooray for equality! It’s good to know that some companies treat everyone poorly, not just women!

Respect is like air. When there’s enough of it around, no one notices. If there’s a shortage, it’s all you’re gonna think about….

2. What Employers Say…

“I see you’ve changed jobs every couple years. We want someone who will stay….”

~What the Applicant Hears…

This is a dead-end job, and we churn through a lot of people. We’d prefer to hire someone with little ambition who’s happy just to have a paycheck.

Are you ambitious? Do you care about your career and remaining current? Are you interested in learning new skills and growing? Because if you are, this isn’t the place for you.

3. What Employers Say…

“I see you haven’t worked in this <domain>…”

“I noted you don’t have this <credential>…”

“I saw you don’t have this <skill>…”

~What the Applicant Hears…

I’ll need to deal with nit-picky criticism and being dismissed because I’m not good enough. If this employer does make an offer, it will be under market because, well, I’m hardly qualified to work here in the first place! If I’m desperate enough to take the job, I’ll be reminded that I’m less than, and that everyone generously looked passed my woeful credentials.

Note to Interviewers: You went through the trouble to bring someone in for a face-to-face (sometimes in front of a panel). Now, you’re going to call out – one by one – all their perceived shortcomings? Focus on what they can do. You had their resume, you saw their LinkedIn… if they’re not qualified, why did you bring them in?

4. What Employers Say…

“I see that you have some gaps in your employment. For example, in <randomyears>, you only worked for part of the year. What’s that all about….?!?”

~What the Applicant Hears…

I’m more interested in your personal life, and nosing around your health, family, and finances than I am in your work experience, skills, education, and how those qualifications are applicable to the opportunity I have available. Your professional background is less important than my moral approval of you and your life choices.

My father died, I wanted to take some time off. I had a baby, I wanted a more flexible job. I was laid off, I wanted to spend time with my kids and re-think my career. I spent a year designing and building my custom home. I was working on a patent. I had major surgery. My mother has Alzheimer’s, and I needed to care for her…

At best, my personal life is none of your business, at worst you’re seeking to circumvent employment laws that prohibit questions of this nature. An interview is to discuss work – stay on topic…

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For employers: Whenever you are in a position to hire (and pay) someone, it’s natural to feel a little entitled. And while we all seek qualified labor, remember that you’re not the only game in town. If you want the best people, your hubris is counter-productive to building a high-performing team. Your culture needs to be one of partnership, not entitlement.

For applicants: A job is a relationship, and the interview is like a first date. Spend less time thinking about how to impress people and pretending to be someone you’re not, and more time listening and asking thoughtful questions. That way if the position is offered, you and your client/employer can feel confident that you are both making the right decision.

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Copyright 2019 Pierce/Wharton Research, LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this post shall be reproduced without permission.

How to Evaluate Your Boss

People leave managers, not companies. Be sure you hire a good boss. When workers have a good manager, they will often accept lower wages. When people quit, they’re firing you. You can’t put a price on a great boss…..

Nothing I just said is new. But, despite all the well-intentioned talent acquisition and retention initiatives embarked upon by company recruiters, I’ve yet to encounter any organization who routinely surveys a manager’s direct reports for feedback on his/her performance.

The answer as to “Why?” staff don’t evaluate managers ranges from the complex (cultural of hierarchy, management v. labor, men v. women), to the paternalist notion that a job is a “gift” that your corporate “family” gives you and you should be grateful for their kindness (versus the negotiated sale of your labor to a disinterested company who then sells the fruits of that labor to a 3rd party for a tidy profit), to the simplistic — but very real possibility of – retribution. All topics for another day.

Most of us are given a boss; we don’t get to choose one. However, if you find yourself in a position to evaluate your potential manager (or feel the need to leave an anonymous note on someone’s desk), here are ten questions to help focus your review:

True or False

~I know my boss always represents me and my skills in the best light.

~I trust that my boss is a strong advocate for me and my career.

~I believe that my boss is an effective advocate for my team.

~If there are changes or meetings with my client/workgroup, my boss informs me of the nature of the meetings so we can discuss how it might affect me or my work.

~My boss seeks to understand fully my situation or problem before s/he offers advice.

~My boss respects my work and appreciates the role I play within the company.

~My boss seeks my advice or input before making decisions that directly affect my job or affect our clients/customers.

~When I have a problem or situation I cannot handle, I am comfortable seeking advice and mentorship from my boss.

~If I were traveling with my boss, and we were stuck in an airport, s/he would make the time there better and easier.

~If I were in a position to hire my boss, I would.

What do all these questions have in common? Integrity. Respect. Leadership. These aren’t skills, they’re qualities, values. You got ’em, you practice them, or you don’t. Leaders inspire others to follow, they don’t tell people what do do. There’s no such thing as contextual integrity. You don’t get to be a great boss being respectful most of the time……

Whenever I interview with a prospective manager, I always ask, “If I were with your team at a happy hour, what would they say about you?” I’ve gotten answers that range from the hostile to obtuse…few have shown any genuine insight in one’s character, never mind management style. We all know how important a good boss is. Maybe the time has come to finally shift our focus from top down to bottom up?

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Copyright 2018 Pierce/Wharton Research, LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this post shall be reproduced without permission. info@piercewharton.com.

W2 or C2C?

One of the questions I get asked most often from those considering contract work is whether to work as a W2 contractor or should they incorporate so they can bill corp-to-corp (C2C).  The answer is – it depends – and it mostly depends on you.

If you are going to contract long term, or you have a particular expertise that you sell, eventually you will move from working as a W2 Contract Employee to working as an Independent / Incorporated contractor or consultant.  Being independent means that you could be billing on a 1099 basis or you could be incorporated and use your corporation to bill the agent or client corp-to-corp (C2C).  Being independent means you are viewed as a business, which is a separate legal entity from yourself. When you’re independent, you have all the privileges and responsibilities of a business owner. “Responsibilities” is the key word here:  If you choose either 1099 or C2C, you will take home a lot more money than you would as a W2 Employee. But if you are not prepared to handle the responsibilities of being self-employed, mo’ money mo’ problems.

Whether you are a sole proprietor, in a partnership, or a principal of a corporation, if you are deriving “Schedule C” income, you are responsible for obtaining business licenses, paying business taxes, keeping accurate records, maintaining general liability, and other types of insurance.  If you’re working as a vendor, you may need to purchase and maintain your own tools, equipment, prepare your own contracts, invoices, and track your payables and receivables. Some clients will provide you a 1099 form for taxes; some do not. Sometimes they’re accurate; sometimes not.  Regardless, you are responsible for an audit trail of your gross receipts and expenses, maintaining bank records, and insuring you adhere to all applicable laws. You need to be prepared to prove everything if there is a discrepancy, and there will be.

When you are independent or incorporated, you are a vendor. Instead of a job description, you have a statement of work (SOW). The SOW details what you are to accomplish for the client, a time frame for doing so, and what the payment and acceptance criteria are. SOWs can be very general or very specific. Its specificity varies by the complexity of the project and your relationship with the client.

When you are a vendor, the client cannot dictate the means by which you complete your work.  So, if you wanted to assembly your PB&J in a different order in your kitchen that is your prerogative. The client can only accept or reject the work.

Most importantly, if you are billing as an independent or incorporated contractor, you do NOT have the same legal protections as you would as a W2 contractor. You are a vendor, just like the Crystal Geyser guy. If the customer decides to go with Sparkletts, Crystal Geyser doesn’t file for unemployment. If the delivery truck gets stolen, Crystal Geyser doesn’t ask the customer to buy them a new one. Similarly, like the Crystal Geyser vendor, you also have an implied warranty with your service.  If something goes wrong, your service is defective, you drop your Pepsi on someone’s laptop, it’s not a “My bad!” you are financially liable for that expense.  If your work is on the critical path of a project, be sure to talk to an insurance agent and your client to ensure you have the coverage you need.  If you own things – like a house – and want to keep it, you’ll need to incorporate.

You want to run a business?  Make big bucks?  We live in a litigious society. Don’t take chances.

Unlike W2 workers, your client will pay you every 30 days just like they pay all their other vendors. But, what if your client doesn’t pay you in 30 days? What if they pay you every 45 days or 60 days?  Or not at all? How long will you keep working without being paid?  A week?  A month?  Two months? How will you collect if they don’t pay?  What if they claim your work is defective, and they refuse to pay?   Similarly, who pays for your travel expenses? Are you putting them on your credit card and waiting for reimbursement? What if they don’t reimburse you or take months to do so? I’ve worked in big corporate offices my entire life: You’d be amazed how many rich companies don’t pay their bills on time.

If you can’t say no, can’t write a contract, could never see yourself suing someone, or all this sounds just too unpleasant for you, don’t waste time billing as an independent or incorporated contractor. I’ve listened to lots of stories (mostly from women I’m sorry to say) who thought they could handle this kind of relationship, and ended up being taken advantage of by someone who was really, really going to pay them as soon as <crisis> passed.

I can assure you that no one is more unpleasant than someone who owes you money.

When you bill as an independent contractor, you’re running a business. Why are you taking out a cash advance at 24 percent to pay your bills while your client (or worse, agent!) heads out to dinner with a full tank of gas in his BMW?

I can assure you that no one is more unpleasant than someone who owes you money, but when you truly work for yourself, you can’t put up with excuses. Other people’s bills and emergencies and sick kids are NOT your problem. Always track your hours and tasks; always keep copies of your work.  Be prepared to withhold work until you are paid for it.  Be prepared to walk off the job if you’re not paid on time, and be prepared to sue.  If you have a tough time sticking up for yourself, can’t handle people’s anger, or you’re afraid of being “mean,” being independent or incorporated is absolutely not for you.

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Excerpted from: The Temp Job: A Survival Guide for the Contingent Worker. Copyright 2017 Pierce/Wharton Research, LLC.  All rights reserved.  No part of this post shall be reproduced without permission. info@piercewharton.com.

The Vol-en-Told Analyst: Three Things NOT to Do

So, your <checkwriter> has determined you can’t afford an analyst for your technology project.  Instead, they want you to do it. (You? Have they met you?)  After Googling “business analyst,” and “elicit” you realize you’re even more clueless than you thought.  Worse, your PM and development team just asked you what the team should start working on….

I can’t teach you to be me, but I can tell you a few things I definitely would NOT do…..

Don’t Become Immersed in Current State

Resist the temptation to become (another) subject matter expert (SME). Chances are you’ve got lots of people in the weeds.  Ask them about the swamp; do not get in there with them. You’ll learn along the way…

Too often novice analysts (and insecure project managers) focus on mastering (and tirelessly documenting) the current state – as if having a Visio now makes it okay to finally get rid of it!  Business process owners are also guilty of the “let me show you ….” instead of providing an answer to your question. Steer clear!  If not, you’ll find yourself burning week(s) learning and flowing out someone’s job when all you really needed was agreement on a data set for the cloud architect.

Unless current state flows and docs are a specific deliverable in the project’s SOW, don’t waste time documenting system’s past. Focus your efforts on eliciting the information you need from your SMEs to define, build, and document future workflows, future components, future interfaces, the future.

Don’t Be Afraid to Assign Deliverables

One of core responsibilities of the team’s analyst to provide the infrastructure and artifacts needed by the appdev (and devops) team so they can build (and test) software.  That doesn’t mean that the analyst is the only person who has to write stuff down.

Every team has a different division of labor, and each analyst has a different style and approach.  Style notwithstanding, we can all agree that I cannot do a Vulcan mind-meld with the DB architect.  I need a schema and component diagram (regularly updated) regardless of how busy you are. Similarly, business process owners aren’t exempt from writing stuff down, either.  I need a list of the exact data points everyone wants retained.  Another demo of “how I do it now,” isn’t a deliverable.

The beauty of a Waterfall effort is that there are clearly defined inputs and outputs. The Gantt is not forgiving.  It shows everyone in the room if a gate is open/closed, and who/what is keeping that gate from closing.  The beauty (and curse) of Agile is that it’s much more flexible. Things requiring more discussion, bigger decisions, “grooming and refinement” can easily be re-prioritized in favor of backlog items upon which there is violent agreement.  As an analyst, you offer insight and best practice advice, but at the end of the day, deliverables codify key business decisions. I can’t make those for you.

Don’t Forget Whose Side You’re On

Whose side are you on?  The Development Team. Period. Why? Because that’s the team you’re actually a part of, and they’re the people doing the work (for you.)

If you’re new to being an software analyst, you will quickly see that your seat in the development team is to articulate the client/business vision.  That doesn’t mean you’re the client.  Conversely, when you sit in client meetings, your role is to be a relentless advocate for the development team.  But, that doesn’t mean you can make decisions or agreements on their behalf.  Being the “creamy filling in the Oreo,” can be difficult.  Empathy, and helping others to have more of it, is an essential skill.

The reality is that no matter how smart you are and how much you’ve thought about something, you’re going to make a mistake or mis-assumption.  Analyst’s mistakes are built into the code, seen in public – sometimes in really big meetings.  You can’t let your client blame the “stupid developers,” when you know full well your poorly written acceptance criteria was the cause.  If you throw your team under the bus – even once – you will quickly regret your lack of courage.

Final Thoughts

There’s a certain amount of frustration involved in the analyst psyche. You’re usually on a steep learning curve, and time is not endless.  You have to accept ambiguity (sometimes a lot of it) and push forward despite unknowns. Learn to say, “I haven’t gotten there yet,” “That was my mistake,” and “We can do it, but it will take more time and money,” and you’ll be just fine.

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Copyright 2017 Pierce/Wharton Research, LLC.  All rights reserved.  No part of this post shall be reproduced without permission. info@piercewharton.com.

Where are my RFP Responses?

In one of my management classes, a group activity was to prepare a Request for Proposal (RFP). The purpose of the RFP was to hire an event company to create and manage a 300-person company picnic. No other specifications were given — kind of like real life.

The teams set to work creating the RFP. Most assembled a list of basic information for the vendor such as a date, number of people, and budget. A few of the groups had specific requests such as a special theme or specific venue. After a half-hour of discussion, the groups were beginning to disband, all except for Detailed Dina’s group. Detailed Dina was the project manager for her team, and she was not going to be so sloppy.

Keeping her group well past the time allotted, she insisted that the RFP include a questionnaire, which asked for references, sample menus, descriptions of other events done, for whom, when, what was the cost vs. the final budget of these events. What type of picnics had the vendor done before? What kinds of themes? For how many? She also asked for credit and banking references, and a list of their subcontractors. Dina assigned each team member a portion of the RFP, and then offered to assemble the final product herself (so it was up to her quality standards). An hour after everyone else left, Dina was satisfied and exceedingly proud of herself. She demonstrated collaborative leadership, and was a team player by taking on the task of assembling the final RFP. Dina was confident her outstanding RFP would result in a superior picnic.

The RFPs were farmed out to the vendor groups. Among the ten RFPs presented, the teams needed to choose five to meet and three to respond.

After all the presentations and discussion were completed, Detailed Dina’s RFP was not selected. Aghast at the slight, Dina demanded to know why no one selected her event. The answer was simple. There were other clients, and her application was too much. Said one team, “I know it’s a game, but it was just so ridiculous….” The instructor tried to mix it up bit. Everyone knew that Detailed Dina has no interested vendors; therefore, whomever bid on her contract was guaranteed to win the business. Wouldn’t that be easier than competing against so many others? Would any team trade creating three proposals for her one?

Lesson #1

First, Detailed Dina made an amateur mistake: She refused to scale. It’s a picnic, not a shuttle launch. Dina was so fixated on her emotional need for data because she felt that more data would help her to secure a quality vendor. Unfortunately, this project wasn’t about data, it was about teamwork and goals. Dina lost sight of the goal, which was to form a relationship with a vendor (which she failed to do), and then manage the relationship (which she was unable to do), for the company’s benefit (which never happened).

This project wasn’t about data; it was about teamwork and goals.

And, while Dina was adamant that she had a far superior RFP, and was friendly and collaborative with her team, no one could argue that if this were real life, her leadership was a failure. Bottom line: They needed a team to do this event, and she was unable to assemble a team.

Lesson #2

This story is also illustrates the shift in the American labor market. You’re hiring a <jobtitle> to do <somethingforyou>, you’re not marrying the guy! Because Dina was in a position to choose and pay the vendor, her attitude was one of entitlement. They needed to “prove” themselves to her.

Your hubris is counter-productive to building a team

And, while we all seek qualified vendors (and it’s natural to feel a little entitled when you’re writing the checks), remember that you’re not the person actually doing the work. If you’re an employer, your attitude needs to be one of partnership, not entitlement. You’re hiring someone because you CANNOT do the work yourself. Your hubris is counter-productive to building a team.

The Conclusion

Dina was surprised by the silence that followed the easy offer of her business.

Dina immediately offered explanations of the rationale behind the formulation of her RFP. The teams quietly discussed the trade-offs of a relationship with Detailed Dina. With fewer clients it could be less work – initially – but since this was a “fixed-price” bid, what was the risk that Detailed Dina would be a difficult client who needed lots of attention, extras or changes? How would that effect the time they spent on this class project?

I think we all know what happened here.

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Excerpted from: The Temp Job: A Survival Guide for the Contingent Worker. Copyright 2017 Pierce/Wharton Research, LLC.  All rights reserved.  No part of this post shall be reproduced without permission. info@piercewharton.com.

Three Things I’ve Learned from My Garden

I have a lot of hobbies; gardening is the most serious. I was introduced to the wonders of plants as a child. Like all hobbies, my garden has grown along with my knowledge and income.

There are few things in life more satisfying than your own garden. The never-ending metaphor for life – a garden offers more than beauty – it offers insight. Here’s a few things I’ve learned from mine:

Anyone Can Change the World

When I was a kid, we lived in a very small apartment. The path from the alley to the back porch was filled with rocks and gravel. It was litter-free, and most renters would have left it alone, but not my Mom and Grandmother. We bought seeds and as soon as Spring would allow, we filled discarded egg cartons with dirt and germinated our crops in the sunny basement windows. Once hardened, my brothers and I dutifully transplanted our seedlings into their assigned places. Over the summer, the Marigolds grew, the Sunflowers blossomed, the Morning Glories climbed through the chain link. We learned to weed and mulch and water. It didn’t matter that I was five, and poor, and lived in a horrible place in a sketch area of town: We made the world a better place, and everyone around us knew it, too.

Gardening is the most egalitarian of hobbies, which is why I love it so. Gardening taught me not to accept my circumstance: I could always make things better for me and for others.  Rich or poor, young or old, gifted or dull: Anyone can grow a beautiful sunflower.

Life is Filled With Death and Failure

Over my lifetime, I’ve spent thousands and thousands of dollars on all kinds of (expensive) plants that — despite my best efforts — have died.  Even more annoying are those that linger and never thrive. Despite 50 years of gardening and my amazing green thumb, I am not immune from disappointment and failure. Not everyone can grow everything well.

Talking about death and failure is something we just don’t do anymore, and I wish we would. Whether painful or shameful, it’s these dark moments that make us change our course.  Only from death and failure do we learn and grow.

Don’t envy beautiful gardens.  Gardens aren’t born, they evolve. Failure is part of the evolution.  The garden has taught me to accept it, learn from it, even plan for it, but most importantly, to let it go. Failure forces you to look for causes, patterns, alternatives.  If it weren’t for those dead petunias, I would have never found succulents.  Today, I have a collection that horticulturalists envy.

Laziness is Sweet; but it’s Consequences are Cruel

Voltaire (also a fan of the garden), is correct in his observation.  Mother nature is an impatient mistress, and she’s not going to wait around for you to “feel” motivated.

Consistent effort is required to achieve anything in life of real value: Good relationships, successful careers, continued health.  They all require consistent effort.

My garden has taught me that procrastinating unpleasant tasks can make them more daunting than they really are. By using the one-hour rule, which is do <whatever work you’re avoiding> for just one hour, I’ve found I almost always able to accomplish more than I originally thought.

>>>>>>

Like affection, effort is never wasted. An hour to till even the smallest garden can lift and inspire others. And, isn’t that what life is all about?

 

Your Culture is your Brand

I’ve been spending a lot of time thinking about culture, how it eats strategy for breakfast, and how most of us think we can’t do anything to change or affect the culture in which we live and work.  I strongly disagree, and so does Tony Hsieh, CEO of Zappos.com.  The following is an excerpt from Delivering Happiness: A Path to Profits, Passion, and Purpose.

“Building a brand today is very different from building a brand 50 years ago. It used to be that a few people got together in a room, decided what the brand position was going to be, and then spent a lot of money buying advertising telling people what their brand was. And if you were able to spend enough money, then you were able to build your brand.”

“It’s a very different world today.  With the Internet connecting everyone together, companies are becoming more and more transparent whether they like it or not.  An unhappy customer or a disgruntled employee can blog about a bad experience with a company, and the story can spread like wildfire…”

“The good news is that the reverse is true as well.  A great experience with a company can be read by millions of people almost instantaneously as well.  The fundamental problem is that you cannot possibly anticipate every possible touch point that could influence the perception of your company’s brand.  Every employee can affect your company’s brand…”

“Many companies have core values, but they don’t really commit to them.  They usually sound more like something you’d read in a press release  Maybe you learn about them on day one of orientation, but after that it’s just a meaningless plaque on the wall of the lobby.”

“We believe that it’s really important to come up with core values that you can commit to.  And by commit, we mean that you’re willing to hire and fire based on them.  If you’re willing to do that then you’re well on your way to building a company culture that is inline with the brand you want to build.  You can let all of your employees be your brand ambassadors, not just the marketing or PR department.”

“At the end of the day, just remember that if you get the culture right, most of the other stuff – including a great brand – will fall into place on it’s own.”

– Tony Hsieh

How Perfectionistss Ruin Quaity

Capture
In the early days of software (when every application came with manual), I took a class for technical writers.  Our first homework assignment was to write directions for how to make tea.  Several of my classmates had questions such as what kind of tea? Was it in a bag or loose?  The instructor said he would provide no other details except for the original task: Write directions for how to make tea.

When class re-assembled the following week, the instructor asked the students to turn in their homework.  He shuffled through the responses and chose several to present to the class. Before presenting, he requested the class hold all comments and questions until after all the submissions were reviewed.  Then, he placed the first page of Paul Perfectionist’s directions on the projector. “That’s mine!” You could see him visibly puff up. Because his directions were first up, they were likely the standard.

Paul had put together an exhaustive set of detailed directions. No detail was too small, no action overlooked, no exception left out.  Paul wrote step-by-step how to unwrap the box of tea, what size pot to select for boiling water, how to turn on the faucet, how to put water into the pot, how to turn on the stove (or light a stove, if necessary), how to set a timer for boiling water.  He created a branch for the benefits of a tea kettle verses a pot, how to choose a cup, how to lay the tea bag in the cup.  He had an alternate scenario for loose tea, including explanations of tea balls, strainers, and cozies…a couple shots of images for tea…all-in-all, there were more than five pages of directions for making tea.

The instructor continued with the next set of directions, which was also lengthy, but not nearly as exhaustive as Paul’s.  The instructor slowly continued on replacing page-after-page of instructions offering no comment on any of the efforts.

I’ve spent a lifetime as a teacher and corporate writer; I knew where this was going.  I sat back and began to look around the room. I could see some of the students’ body language had already changed. Shoulders hunched, furrowed brows — they looked confused, worse ashamed.  Had they misunderstood the assignment?  Was this more complicated than they originally thought?  Self-doubt descended like a fog.

As the presentation continued, the directions became significantly briefer.  One student (who had asked about loose or bag), wrote “One bag = 2 Tbls,” which I recall thinking was exceedingly clever copy for tea packaging. I remember Paul rolled his eyes when I complimented the writer on the usefulness of that line, “That doesn’t even tell you how to make tea!” he scoffed.  The last submission displayed was, “Add hot water. Enjoy.”

The projector went off. The lights went on.  Paul was beaming with pride.  “So,” the instructor began, “Which of these directions do you think is the best?”

“The last one,” I said quickly and with conviction.

“I agree,” the instructor responded.

Now, if you thought that Paul had a “ah-hah!” moment, you have little experience with the detail-obsessed, perfectionist disorder.  On the contrary, Paul was PISSED OFF!  Without a second of reflection, he launched into a full-scale attack on his classmates and the instructor.  The others didn’t understand the complexity of tea, and that’s why he detailed out every approach to it. These brief responses indicated his colleagues were lazy and didn’t want to do the homework.  It’s clear they took a short-cut in the assignment, which is why they wrote so little. Paul assured everyone that he had spent a lot of time working on this, and making tea was much, much, more complicated than we really knew.  No one had even thought to include images!  What if someone didn’t know what a teabag looked like!

My personal impatience with the narcissism of perfectionists notwithstanding, I gleefully threw coal in his furnace and offered that I wrote no directions at all; rather, I documented an audience assumption that tea – a staple of every kitchen in every culture – is something the audience or purchaser would already know how to make.  It’s not an enchilada.

Other real-world rejections of Paul’s work quickly followed: Tea does not come with directions now, why would we need them in the future?  No tea company would ever create collateral or change packaging to accommodate five pages of directions. No one buying tea would ever read a five-page insert if they did. Another pointed out that Paul’s directions (literally) included a section on how to boil water! Knowing how to boil water was the same reason light bulbs didn’t come with directions. Ha-ha. The class chuckled, the fog of self-doubt lifted, and there was a sigh of relief from those who had not crafted lengthy directions. Paul, however, was not amused.  He insisted that it was possible some men could not know how to boil water or turn on a stove (although most women were likely to know this, he conceded). Then, finally after all his other defenses were exhausted, Paul played the “safety” card (aka: the Hail Mary of all corporate disagreements), and strongly asserted that without directions someone might burn themselves or ingest the tea bag, which could result in a law suit…

The Lesson

Paul was a student in a class of colleagues, so the ability to critique his work is assumed.  That is rarely the case in real-life. Imagine if Paul Perfectionist were a manager, lead or (heaven forbid) stakeholder?  Given Paul’s predilection toward perfectionism, if he were someone’s boss do you think he would be open to a less-detailed approach or would he just see that as sloppy?  What are the chances that a peer – never mind subordinate – could call Paul out on his emotional need for detail?  Even if some courageous person did tell Paul he was being ridiculous, do you think the rest of the group would jump in and support their colleague’s “sloppy approach” compared to Paul’s exhaustive completeness?  Lastly, with so much ego and emotion displayed by Paul, even if the group felt that Paul’s directions were expensive or might result in a negative outcome, how likely is it that they would coalesce to fight actively against him?  Or do think it’s more likely the group would just “deal” with Paul because they have families to support and just don’t have the energy to argue with him anymore….?

Paul and Polly Perfectionists exist in every business. What all these perfect people have in common is the same narcissistic misconception that they – alone – can assure quality.  We euphemistically call them “bottlenecks” or say they need “special hand-holding.”  In private, we call them high-maintenance PITAs, and tell colleagues to circumvent them because do nothing but cause spin and churn.

Perfectionists are the most destructive of leaders and teammates because they talk non-stop about quality, but they don’t listen to quality. Quality is not a person. Quality is not a checklist. Quality is a process.  A quality processes requires a team, and the perfectionists of the world never have a good one because teams require honesty, communication, and trust.  Perfectionists don’t understand that state of being.  Their lives are filled with fear, suspicion, and distrust.  It haunts them at work; it strains their personal relationships. A Paul Perfectionist may run a team, but he rarely considers himself a part of that team because – qualitatively – he is sure he is above the others and perfectionism is not a flaw.

Excellence is a value; Perfectionism is an insecurity.

Everyone should take pride in his/her work, everyone should have input, but when I see over-engineered and voluminous solutions, I don’t think, “Ahh, so smart!” Rather, I corner my teammate(s) 1:1 and ask questions.  Inevitably, I’ll hear “Yeah, we had to do <whatever> because <controlfreakperfectionist> is a PITA, which is why we’re <late/over budget/short staffed>. Avoid them if you can….”

Over the course of my career, I have been amazed at the number of high-priced consultants and internal project teams who churn away days and weeks of expensive time adding linguistic dandruff to presentations, plans and proposals whose only goal is to sooth the emotions and ego of someone who is sure they’re adding quality.  CapEx budgets become bloated by stakeholder reviews and timelines are delayed all because no one going to jeopardize the financial stability of their family by telling Paul Perfectionist that we don’t need five pages of directions on how to make tea.

The Conclusion

The instructor cornered Paul during break and tried to talk him down, which was not easy because perfectionists are quite sure that you aren’t smart enough to see the world as clearly as they, and who are you to criticize their drive for perfection anyway?

The instructor explained to Paul the purpose of the class (and education, in general) was to challenge pre-conceived notions. Audience is the most important consideration in any communication, and Paul did not consider his when writing his directions.  Although Paul reluctantly agreed that perhaps boiling water was a bit much, he would not relent on the other stuff.  Besides, even if fewer directions were acceptable, more paperwork and detail is always better. I mean, this is tea, sure, but in real-life, in business, there would never be a time where more documentation or direction would be worse, right?

The instructor asked Paul to keep an open mind, and then politely turned to another student who had been patiently waiting.

Paul never came back to class.

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Excerpted from: The Temp Job: A Survival Guide for the Contingent Worker. Copyright 2017 Pierce/Wharton Research, LLC.  All rights reserved.  No part of this post shall be reproduced without permission. info@piercewharton.com; Follow on Twitter and Facebook @TheTempJob

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